Sterling A. Brown (1901-1989), educated at Williams College and Harvard University, was born on the same Howard University campus where he would serve as a popular and demanding professor of literature for forty years. A black poets’ poet as well as an influential classroom teacher of Amiri Baraka, Ossie Davis, and Toni Morrison, Brown stressed the higher wisdom of black vernacular music and folklore. (According to another of his distinguished students, the black conservative Thomas Sowell, Brown insisted that the wisdom offered by Harvard had, by contrast, “ruined more [Negroes] than bad liquor.”) Brown’s poetry collection Southern Road (1932) joined the work of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston in demonstrating that African American dialect could escape the tired keys of pathos and humor. Despite Brown’s distaste for the idea of the Harlem Renaissance, the blues-tinged verse in Southern Road was received as one of this movement’s major statements and challenges. As critic James Smethurst suggests, Brown’s assumption “that the culture of the Black Belt is alive and vital” tested the vision of Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), which had proposed that black “rural culture, and the perceived closeness of that culture to the land and nature,” was waning. Brown underlined the national—not just rural and Southern—importance of African American literature in a series of diligent and innovative studies including The Negro in American Fiction (1937) and Negro Poetry and Drama (1937). The FBI opened its file on Brown in 1941, concerned by his apparent Communism and possible violation of the Hatch Act. Confronting him in a face-to-face interview, FBI agents were treated to a lengthy discussion of Brown’s opinions on art, race, and American democracy. “I have gotten, I suppose[,] the reputation as a radical because of my position on the race matter in America,” Brown proudly concluded.
FBI documents studying Sterling Brown.
Material is in the public domain.
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